Forget concrete and cement, DARPA thinks skin and bone make better building blocks

The US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is attempting to build living, self-healing, programmable buildings.

DARPA’s Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program imagines that materials like bone, skin, bark and coral could form future building blocks as they provide advantages over non-living materials built with today, in that they can be grown where needed, self-repair when damaged and respond to changes in their surroundings.

“The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM program manager, Justin Gallivan.

“Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

DARPA-living-homes

Grown materials are not entirely new, but the program DARPA is embarking on aims to produce living buildings that differ substantially from previous iterations.

Biologically sourced structural materials can already be grown into specified sizes and shapes from inexpensive feedstocks: packing materials derived from fungal mycelium and building blocks made from bacteria and sand are two modern examples.

However, these products are rendered inert during the manufacturing process, so they exhibit few of their components’ original biological advantages.

The ELM program is attempting to combine the best features of these existing technologies and build on them to create hybrid materials composed of non-living scaffolds that give structure to and support the long-term stability of engineered living cells.

bacteria

The long-term objective of the ELM program is to develop living buildings that don’t require scaffolds or external development cues to be moulded into desired shapes and properties.

To achieve this DARPA will have to fundamentally change scientists’ understanding of developmental pathways and how those pathways direct the three-dimensional development of multicellular systems.

This goal may be some way off, but in a press release the defence agency did say why striving for that goal is worthwhile.

“Living materials represent a new opportunity to leverage engineered biology to solve existing problems associated with the construction and maintenance of built environments, and to create new capabilities to craft smart infrastructure that dynamically responds to its surroundings,” reads DARPA’s statement.

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